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attribution biases

Human behavior can be understood as issuing from "internal" factors or personal characteristics--such as motives, intentions, or personality traits--and from "external" factors--such as the physical or social environment and other factors deemed out of one's personal control. Self-serving creatures that we are, we tend to attribute our own successes to our intelligence, knowledge, skill, perseverance, and other positive personal traits. Our failures are blamed on bad luck, sabotage by others, a lost lucky charm, and other such things. These attribution biases are referred to as the dispositional attribution bias and the situational attribution bias.They are applied in reverse when we try to explain the actions of others. Others succeed because they're lucky or have connections and they fail because they're stupid, wicked, or didn't try hard enough.

We may tend to attribute the behaviors of others to their intentions because it is cognitively easier to do so. We often have no idea about the situational factors that might influence another person or cause them to do what they do. We can usually easily imagine, however, a personal motive or personality trait that could account for most human actions. We usually have little difficulty in seeing when situational factors are at play in affecting our own behavior. In fact, people tend to over-emphasize the role of the situation in their own behaviors and under-emphasize the role of their own personal motives or personality traits. Social psychologists refer to this tendency as the actor-observer bias.

One lesson here is that we should be careful when interpreting the behavior of others. What might appear to be laziness, dishonesty, or stupidity might be better explained by situational factors of which we are ignorant. Another lesson is that we might be giving ourselves more credit for our actions than we deserve. The situation may have driven us more than we admit. Maybe we "just did what anybody would do in that situation" or maybe we were just lucky. We may want to follow the classical Greek maxim "know thyself," but modern neuroscience has awakened us to the fact that much of our thinking goes on at the unconscious level and we often don't know what is really motivating us to do what we do or think what we think.

Something similar to the self-serving attribution of positive traits to explain our own behavior and negative traits to explain the behavior of others occurs with regard to beliefs. Michael Shermer and Frank Sulloway identified a kind of attribution error while doing a survey on why people believe in a god. They found that most people attributed their own belief in a god to rational inference or personal experience ("the universe is so well designed," "I experience god daily") while the majority attributed the belief of others to emotional need ("the belief comforts them," "believing makes it easier to face death"). The intellectual attribution bias finds a rational basis for one's own beliefs, while the emotional attribution bias finds an emotional basis for the beliefs of others. There is also an implicit value judgment here: having a rational motive is superior to having an emotional one.

Shermer (2011) claims these biases are also found in political beliefs. On gun control, for example, both liberals and conservatives think their own positions are rationally based. Liberals see their opponents' beliefs as due to their heartlessness and emotional attachment to weapons; conservatives see liberals' beliefs as due to their bleeding heart softheadedness. For example: Only sane people think a person does not need a hidden weapon. Only people who have low self esteem of themselves or need something to make them feel grown up need to hide his/her weapon. And the reply: Why is it non-gunners all seem to feel that carrying a gun is an ego booster or an act only a paranoid person would do? Or, liberals cry for gun control every time somebody's killed with a gun; their gut tells them gun control will make the world a safer place. Right. And pigs can fly.

Edward E. Jones and Victor Harris (1967), building on the work of Austrian psychologist Fritz Heider (1958), called the tendency of people to attribute another person's behavior to personal characteristics--even when the person's behavior is most likely the result of situational demand--correspondence bias. Social psychologist Lee Ross coined the expression "fundamental attribution error" to describe the tendency to see the behavior of others in terms of personal characteristics rather than considering that the situation they are in may have been more significant in determining their actions. (For a classic example of the fundamental attribution error, see the news accounts of Thamsanqa Jantjie's signing performance at services for Nelson Mandela. Many viewed Jantjie's signing as intentionally absurd; Jantjie says he has schizophrenia and was hallucinating during his signing.)

Ross is also known for his work with Robert Vallone and Mark Lepper and their discovery that people with strong biases toward an issue perceive media coverage as biased against their opinions even when the bias cannot be attributed to bias in the media report. They discovered this by presenting the same news reports to people with strong, but opposing, biases and finding that both sides considered the media reports biased against their side and biased in favor of the other side. They called this the hostile media effect. Something similar happens in team sporting events: fans for both teams see referee bias against their side and in favor of the other side. We might call this the hostile referee effect.

See also intentionality bias, the hidden persuaders.

further reading  

Heider, Fritz. 1958. The Psychology of Interpersonal Relations. Wiley.

Jones, Edward E. and Victor A. Harris. 1967. The Attribution of Attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 3, 1-24.

Shermer, Michael. 2011. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. Times Books.

Vallone, Robert P., Lee Ross and Mark R. Lepper. 1985. The hostile media phenomenon: Biased Perception and Perceptions of Media Bias in Coverage of the "Beirut Massacre." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577-585.

Last updated 14-Dec-2014

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